O n 1671 visit to the polymath Sir Thomas Browne, John Evelyn remarked that ‘his whole house and garden is a paradise and Cabinet of rarities and that of the best collection, amongst Medails, books, Plants, natural things’. This description encapsulates the spirit of the fashionable ‘cabinet of curiosity’, a prototype of the modern-day museum gallery. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the word ‘cabinet’ was etymologically rich: referring not only to an item of furniture as in the modern sense of the word, but also connoting a ‘secret repository’, a ‘meeting place for the confidential advisors of a sovereign’, a ‘summer house or bower’, and an ‘animal’s den’. Cabinets of curiosity reflected this diversity of meaning, housing collections that were expansive, eclectic, and sometimes bordering on the fantastical. Such spaces served a number of creative purposes: as memory theatres whose contents resembled a harmonious prelapsarian natural order, as contributions to scientific organisations like the Royal Society, and as emblems of growing spheres of geo-political influence.
John Milton’s Paradise Lost (lot 58) is firmly situated within a world where the categories of available knowledge were rapidly burgeoning. His poem envisions the Garden of Eden as a museum assembled by the ultimate collector, with limitless resources at his disposal. Teeming with ‘Flowers of all hue’ and ‘All the beasts of the earth’, this garden moves well beyond the iconographic representation of the hortus conclusus in the Medieval tradition, in spite of Eden’s ‘narrow limits’. At first, Adam and Eve are able to name all the flora and fauna by instinct, the garden’s contents falling into a harmonious natural order.
But curiously, even before the Fall, efforts to stop the plants from proliferating beyond their natural bounds turn from a gentle pastime into an unpleasant form of toil, so that husband and wife eventually choose to divide their labours. In this defining moment, the parallel between art and life is apparent: in the late seventeenth century, even someone as well-read as Milton struggled to compress the entirety of classical and Biblical learning—as well as other contemporary forms of intellectual engagement— into the framework of an epic poem.
Many of the large folio volumes in this sale were as labour-intensive to produce as Paradise Lost. One such work (lot 76) is a finely illustrated catalogue of specimens compiled by Albertus Seba (1665-1773), a pharmacist and zoologist who corresponded with Carl Linnaeus, and whose connections within the Dutch East India Company allowed him to assemble one of the greatest collections in the Netherlands. The engraved portrait of Seba is a site of self-fashioning laden with symbolism.
The collector’s left hand gestures towards a table of shells and minerals (objects of empirical observation), though the viewer’s eye soon wanders towards the bottled snake held in Seba’s right hand, which represents the figure of the collector-scientist triumphing over the death-bringing Biblical serpent. Holding pride of place upon the table is the Book of Nature, aligning Seba’s work with the Enlightenment aim of comprehending God’s natural design through rational inquiry. Sadly, Seba died before this ambitious catalogue was completed, although the proceeds from the auction of his collection in 1752 enabled the publication of the final two volumes, with many of the real-life specimens finding an afterlife in European museums, where they remain to this day.
Another standout piece is Georg Wolfgang Knorr’s Deliciae naturae selectae (lot 48). The exquisite hand-coloured engraved plates document leading natural history collections of the day, including specimens personally owned by Knorr and members of his scientific circle. Knorr himself, born in Nuremberg in 1705, was a fascinating character—an autodidact rather than a wealthy dilettante. As a teenager, he became an engraver of copperplates, and early on he had the good fortune to work alongside Martin Tyroff on the illustrations for Scheuchzer’s Physia Sacra (a Biblical commentary articulating a worldview in which science and religion converge).
The painstaking work of engraving sharpened an artistic sensibility strongly influenced by Albrecht Dürer, and Knorr also began to foster a scientific interest, spurred on by his correspondence with Royal Academicians. The engraver’s first independently produced works were views of Nuremberg, though his mature output focuses more narrowly, and more fruitfully, on the rich inward vistas revealed through the close scrutiny of minerals, shells, and other natural objects, piece by piece. By the time of his death in 1761, Knorr had made a lasting contribution to the emerging scientific field of mineralogy, and his output of exquisite natural history engravings formed his artistic monument.
Equally as fascinating as the characters of the collectors themselves are the buildings commissioned to showcase their collections. Few were more grandiose than the menagerie built by Prince Eugene of Savoy, rendered in the engravings of Salomon Kleiner (lot 46). This structure is shaped like a Roman amphitheatre, a locale in which the most audacious spectacles of nature are designed to be enacted. But here the space is playfully inverted, with the ostriches, bulls, and lions occupying the position of spectators, whilst the visitors are placed in medias res. Kleiner’s engraving does a brilliant job of transporting the viewer to the centre of an ordered cosmos, from where it is possible to gaze out upon the magnificence of Creation, extending beyond the menagerie into the surrounding landscape.
As the Sotheby’s cataloguer writing this piece, and for any prospective buyer reading this article, both the struggle to organise knowledge and the pleasure of selecting and compiling rare and beautiful objects are all too familiar. Therefore, the idea of the cabinet of curiosity is not merely an intellectual strand running through many of the lots in the sale, but also the perfect metaphor for the creative impulse underpinning this collection as a whole. When the contents of the library go under the hammer on 28th November, we hope that the animating spirit of the cabinet of curiosity will live on for a new generation of collectors.